In an exchange early in The Departed (Warner Brothers), Martin Scorsese’s big, slick, and snappy remake of the Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs, the Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) asks an underling how his sick mother is doing. “She’s on her way out,” sighs the aging gangster. Costello’s retort: “We all are. Act accordingly.” (Say this line in your broadest Jack Nicholson impression, and you’ll get the idea.) Scorsese lives by that nihilist dictum in The Departed, seizing the Andrew Lau original between his teeth and gobbling it whole. After the strained artfulness of Gangs of New York and The Aviator, he’s back to making movies like there’s no tomorrow, and that can’t help but be a good thing.
The Departed isn’t the masterpiece I have the feeling some may hail it as. It feels like the kind of movie critics might overpraise, if only because it’s nice to see Scorsese back in the saddle and a treat to find a cops-and-robbers thriller with some energy and wit. But even so, it’s a stylish head rush of a movie that flies by, even at two-and-a-half hours, and keeps turning the knife (and your stomach) up to the final scene.
A lot of those twists come courtesy of the movie’s neatly symmetrical double-agent premise. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a mole planted in the Massachusetts State Police by the sadistic and paranoid Costello. To all appearances, Sullivan is a choirboy of a cop, heading an anti-organized-crime unit under police Capt. Ellerby (Alec Baldwin)and his hotheaded right-hand man, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). Sullivan garners praise for his dogged pursuit of Costello even as he feeds the gangster tips on how to evade arrest. He also charms a police shrink (Vera Farmiga) into falling in love with him and moving into his swell apartment, financed, unbeknownst to her, by mob money.
Meanwhile, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is Sullivan in reverse: A perpetual screw-up who was kicked out of the police academy, he’s recruited to go deep undercover as a member of Costello’s gang. So deep undercover that Costigan winds up serving as witness, if not accomplice, to a sickening succession of brutal crimes (and rest assured that Scorsese shows them to us in gory detail). Racked by guilt and in constant fear for his life, he begs to be taken off the detail, but the higher-ups keep putting him off, holding out for the one big bust that will finally nail Costello and shut down his organization.
In Infernal Affairs, every plot twist clicked satisfyingly into place as the fate of the two leads converged inexorably toward a central vanishing point. The good guy pretending to be bad and the bad guy pretending to be good: What better setup for a classic existential and moral riddle? But here, for every “aha!” moment, there’s an equal and opposite “ouch.” It’s hard to get into details without spoiling something in a movie this rife with double agents and triple fakeouts, but much of the two informants’ surveillance—conducted by means of text messaging on barely concealed cell phones—is implausible to the point of absurdity, and the ending leaves several red herrings flopping on the deck.
The movie opens on stock shots of racial unrest and protests in 1960s Boston, suggesting a political metaphor that’s never followed through on. Later, Costello pontificates to Costigan about the artistry of John Lennon while brandishing a severed human hand. Unsettling and bizarre, yes, but what does this scene mean? Is Nicholson’s unhinged Costello supposed to personify some generational type, the dark nadir of entitled boomer-ism? Or is he just a random sicko?
The role of Costello, expanded significantly from that of the crime boss in Infernal Affairs, is evidently based on the real Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. But Nicholson, who brags about having done no research for the role, serves Bulger up with a side of Jack Torrance and a twist of Randle McMurphy. Nicholson is often hilarious here, but I would have liked to see him mute the wackiness a little in the interest of the movie’s overall tone. The cutesy last shot, which I’ll leave as a surprise for the viewer, seems complicit with the jokiness of Nicholson’s performance, and it does a disservice to the seriousness (not to mention gruesome violence) of much of what’s gone before. Though The Departed has flourishes of black comedy throughout, it’s not Prizzi’s Honor; it’s a truly dark movie in which many people die horribly, and ending on a goofy visual pun makes fools of the audience for caring.
I’ve always had a slight animus toward Damon and a downright grudge against DiCaprio, but both are excellent here. They even start to resemble each other as the film goes on, two sweet-faced boys with hollow cores who can lie their way into and out of whatever they want. As the foul-mouthed putdown artist Dignam, Wahlberg can’t deliver a line without cracking the audience up. He shines even amidst a uniformly strong cast, just as he did in I Heart Huckabees. And Vera Farmiga, who was so searing in last year’s Down to the Bone, is an unusual casting choice for the love interest. But she works: In a movie about the deadly zero-sum game of masculinity, her wispy, cerebral presence suggests the possibility of a different world, one in which not every conflict need tend toward mutual annihilation. Unfortunately, it’s not a world the wise guys of The Departed are ready to live in.